Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Despite its playfulness and humor, the poem focuses generally on loss. By interchangeably referring to himself as tu, or “you,” and as je, or “I,” Apollinaire demonstrates the disjointed nature of the modern consciousness. It can be assumed that the poet in his youth felt a sense of wholeness and well-being when he devoutly worshiped God in the church; this is reflected in the consistency with which the poet sometimes addresses himself as “you,” especially in section 7. This unity is lost over time, however, because of his failure in love and his loss of faith. Toward the poem’s end, the narrator is as dislocated as the poem itself: “You no longer dare look at your hands and every minute I feel like sobbing/ Over you and over the girl I love and over everything that has terrified you.”
The loss of faith haunts the poet. As a boy, nothing delighted him “more than church ceremony,” but as an adult he can only say, “You are ashamed when you catch yourself saying a prayer/ You laugh at yourself.” His shame also keeps him from “entering a church and confessing [his] sins.” He ends the poem walking toward his home to sleep among fetishes and idols, “Which are Christs of another form . . ./ Minor Christs of dim expectancies.” They do not offer the consolation the youthful faith provided; when the sun rises, often a symbol of hope, of possible resurrection or rebirth, the poet sees it instead as a severed head.
The progress of the twentieth century seems to offer some form of salvation to the poet. He genuinely exults, particularly in section 8, in the tremendous advances in technology; the mythic world is temporarily reborn because humans are able to fly. Yet this amazingly eclectic section, which euphorically joins the natural and supernatural, the East and West, and the biblical and classical worlds, really can not sustain the poet. Without human love (“The love I endure is like a syphilis”) or divine intervention in his life, the poet feels displaced, disjointed, and ill at ease in the contemporary world. Memory, working like the “hands on the clock in the Jewish quarter that go backward,” comforts him somewhat, but it also unnerves him by showing what he has lost and the years he has wasted. Only art, an art true to the dislocations of the period, can offer recompense for what is gone.